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Editorial: Clearwater must give college expansion close scrutiny

A proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution on the Nov. 2 general election ballot could, if approved, give voters the opportunity to say "yes" or "no" each time government wants to change land uses in their communities. That explains why the city of Clearwater is rushing to help Clearwater Christian College obtain land use changes it needs to expand its campus. But some of Clearwater's most environmentally sensitive land would be affected. And the city has a responsibility to take more time, seek more science, hear more public input and recall some history.

Clearwater Christian College is located on a peninsula that juts into Old Tampa Bay on the north side of the Courtney Campbell causeway just east of Bayshore Boulevard. The peninsula is surrounded on the west, north and east by water and on the south by the causeway. Except for the 19-acre campus, the peninsula is undeveloped and covered by forest, wetlands and mangroves.

The college owns more than 130 acres of the peninsula, but the north end, an area known as Cooper's Point, is owned by the public — the residents of Clearwater and Pinellas County — and is preserved as a nature park considered so environmentally delicate that the public is allowed only limited access.

Clearwater Christian, which opened in the 1960s, envisions growing eventually to a 32-acre campus. It has identified some needs, including a new dormitory, additional parking, baseball and soccer fields, and more administrative and classroom space. Since the campus is hemmed in by water and wetlands, the college either has to move offsite to grow or expand its footprint into the environmentally delicate land that surrounds it.

Going offsite would have been the best option, but that's not the route the college chose. Thursday night, the Clearwater City Council is scheduled to vote on land use changes the college has requested to allow it to expand into areas of its property now designated as preservation on the future land use map. The council also is scheduled to vote on a development agreement negotiated between the city and the college that would lay out the obligations of both sides. The Clearwater Community Development Board, a citizen board, approved the college's applications in a special meeting Tuesday, despite objections from several local environmental activists who hastily mounted a fight against the proposal.

The college plans to locate an athletic field, of all things, a mere nine feet from an active eagle nest. It would add several hundred new parking spaces. And it would destroy more than seven acres of natural area, including wetlands that would be filled in and mangroves that would be cut down.

An individual homeowner who proposed such destruction would be sent packing, but the college is finding support from city officials in part because its request impacts a relatively small amount of land, and in part because of what the college has offered to sweeten the deal.

The college has agreed to mitigate its negative impact on the environment by turning 99 acres of its undeveloped property into a mitigation bank that could be used by the college and also potentially by other developers to make up for negative environmental impacts on their projects elsewhere. The college, for example, proposes to widen mosquito ditches throughout the wetlands to "create a branching system of tidal creeks."

After all the "mitigation credits" of the 99 acres were exhausted — if they ever were — the college would transfer the acreage to the city or some other government or environmental entity.

Before city officials grab the college's deal, they should spend some time thinking about what that means.

Mitigation is not the same as preservation. Mitigation supposedly makes up for destruction in another place, but the goal should be to prevent destruction in the first place. Indeed, Clearwater's own comprehensive plan argues strenuously for protection and preservation of wetlands and mangroves.

The city should not vote without getting more input from objective environmental experts. Is expanding mosquito ditches protective of the natural environment or destructive of it? The college has offered few specifics, and no solid scientific proof, about its mitigation proposals. Neither has it provided any believable justification for encroaching on an eagle nest, except to argue that the birds will get comfortable with it.

City officials have pointed out that the college will have to go through approvals from several other local, state and federal agencies before it can build anything. But it is the city's support that would open the door, and it would send a signal that Clearwater no longer protects wetlands.

In the late 1980s, the residents of Clearwater and Pinellas County so treasured the Cooper's Point peninsula that they mounted a yearslong fight against the Sembler Co. to buy it and save it from development into single-family homesites. The land was given land-use designations to preserve it for perpetuity. Now, the city is considering changes to allow the construction of ballfields and parking lots and school buildings.

Though a small amount of land might be impacted, it is a big change of direction. The city needs to make the right decision for the environment.

Editorial: Clearwater must give college expansion close scrutiny 08/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 6:54pm]
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